CityViews:
How New Yorkers can Reach Towards ‘Zero Waste’ this Year

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It's simple to set up a Free Box in one's apartment building or wherever people congregate.

Jacquelyn Ottman

It's simple to set up a Free Box in one's apartment building or wherever people congregate.

Have you been hearing about "Zero Waste" lately? It's an international movement that now counts among its adherents big U.S. cities like San Francisco, Los Angeles, Austin and Minneapolis. Most recently, New York City has taken its first steps down this road. On Earth Day 2015, Mayor de Blasio announced the city's first Zero Waste plan, an attempt to rein in the costs and risks associated with disposing of the more than 10,000 tons of discards generated each day in New York which are exported at great environmental, health and financial expense to out-of-state landfills and incinerators.

Zero Waste is a new mindset about how we use our natural resources and the pollution we create when converting these resources to products and packaging. It's not only about diverting waste from landfills and incinerators so that resources can be reused, recycled, and composted into new materials. It's particularly about changing our purchasing and repair habits so that we reduce the amount and toxicity of waste that we create in the first place. Changing behavior is a process and most easily done by starting with a few things and adding more as you go along.

Did you know that most of the environmental impacts of our society trace to the emissions, water and land pollution and climate impacts generated because of the mining, logging, refining, manufacturing, and transporting of products that we buy? In fact, EPA has indicated that about 40 percent of all climate impacts are due to the production of goods (so that's even more than emissions associated with lighting and heating/cooling our buildings or emissions from cars).

So, adopting new consumption habits capable of cutting out waste are things that we all can resolve to do in 2016. At the same time, we'll can reap big rewards in cutting down on clutter and stress, saving money, and even strengthening our communities to create a better life for ourselves and neighbors.

New York City's new "Zero Waste" plan calls for a 90 percent diversion from landfill by 2030 of all waste generated by households, businesses, schools and other institutions. But savvy New Yorkers don't have to wait that long to get to "zero waste or darn near." Start by taking some of the steps outlined below in your home, community, and in the larger city this year with the objective of reducing how much you dispose of in the trash (waste).

1. Reuse, repair and recycle in your own household

Reuse

Supermarket plastic bags represent 2 percent of the city's waste stream and cost the city $2 Million to dispose of each year, clogging up sewer drains, blighting trees, and gumming up recycling works in the process. A simple thing that all New Yorkers can do is to carry a foldable reusable bag with you, setting a good example while doing so. It's amazing how a little social pressure can make trends catch on. Once the bag's packed, you'll find it that much easier to make a habit of carrying a refillable water bottle, a spork, and asking the folks at Starbucks to prepare your coffee 'to stay'.

Donate and buy used things. That completes the reuse loop. There's everything from the online forums to Goodwill, Housing Works, and Salvation Army, but there are also less known places to donate and buy. Big Reuse, with warehouses in Astoria and Gowanus, is a place for promoting reuse of building materials like lumber, cabinets, appliances, furniture, lights, plumbing fixtures, and doors.

Repair

Thanks to some innovative fixit organizations, getting things repaired is starting to get easier in New York. PopUp Repair shops are now appearing in greenmarkets on the Upper West Side and Inwood, and the Fixers Collective stage walk-in repair nights in Brooklyn and Manhattan. Inspired by an international movement, local congregations and other organizations can stage repair cafés of their own, staffed by volunteers with skills, tools and sewing machines. San Diego is now staging a repair cafe in the main library every two weeks, staffed by volunteers. Want to learn fixing skills? Check out ifixit.com.

Recycle

Most items can be recycled, or composted or reused in New York City, if you know what to do. For starters, note which items go in "Green Bins" (paper and cardboard) and which are appropriate for the Blue (Mixed recyclables - metal, plastics, glass). Note that all paper and cardboard is recyclable as are all rigid plastics.

The 'chasing arrows' recycling logo has three arrows for a reason:

  1. collect in communities,
  2. make items from the materials that are collected, and
  3. buy the products made from recycled content.

So, to close the 'recycling loop', make sure to buy products and packages that are made from recycled content and labeled as such. Note that the chasing arrows logo doesn't always mean a product contains recycled content.

Avoid putting plastic bags, bubble wrap and film in with your recyclables since that contaminates them making it harder to sell for making into new products. Rather, take plastic bags and film to large grocery and drugstore chains, which now must offer plastic film recycling collection bins under New York State law.

Food and Organics

Employ 'first in first out' to minimize spoilage in your refrigerator. Make leftovers into new meals and stock for soups. Forty percent of food is wasted in this country while people go hungry. Wasting food unnecessarily depletes soil and water resources, energy resources used in their preparation for market, packaging and transportation, and creates pollution and greenhouse gases along the way. So, take care to buy only the food you can use — or pass it along to friends and neighbors — before it goes bad.

If food does go bad, compost food scraps along with leaves and grass in your own backyard or community garden. Composting creates organic material that, when mixed with your soil, makes it more fertile so plants grow faster. Food and yard debris deposited in landfills create methane, a greenhouse gas more than 20 times as potent as carbon dioxide.

If you don't have a back yard, many New York residents are now in walking distance of 40 local greenmarkets where you can drop off scraps excluding meat, fish, dairy products and pet waste for composting into soil right here in the city. If you live in an apartment building, you can request a 21-gallon bin provided by the Department of Sanitation by visiting www.nyc.gov/apt-recycling. (This link also works for requesting bins for textiles and electronics.)

Textiles

Drop off textiles, which include clothing as well as sheets, upholstery and other fabrics, and shoes, at numerous greenmarkets and thrift stores. These articles are sorted for reuse or recycling. Your landlord can now request a RefashionNYC bin for collecting clothing right in your apartment building from the Department of Sanitation services (see above link). Don't forget to save your gently worn coats until mid-November when The NYCares Coat Drive begins.

Electronics

Since January 2015 it has been illegal to discard electronics in the trash. If you can't get your landlord to participate in the city's e-cycle bin program, electronics can be discarded at a number of office supply and electronics stores, such as Staples and Best Buy. Thrift stores like Goodwill and Salvation Army also collect. (Here is a map of collection sites.)

Want to learn more about opportunities to recycle in New York City? Consult the city's webpage of helpful "zero waste" resources.

1 Cooperate with your community

Working collaboratively with members of your local community to reduce waste magnifies the impact of individual household efforts. One trend in particular that has been augmented by the Internet, is the sharing economy. Manifested online and off, it helps individuals and communities to leverage underutilized assets while creating opportunities for social interaction and building economic resilience.

Sell/buy/exchange

Organize a flea market, yard or stoop sale by a single theme like fancy dresses, handbags, kitchen aids or sci-fi books. Take advantage of internet sites that enable anyone with a laptop or smart phone to immediately sell, buy or exchange. Craigslist.org and eBay.com are popular websites for peer-to-peer selling, Wallapop is new for Android, and a growing number of communities are creating private Facebook 'For Sale or Trade' pages.

Rent/lease

Keep closets from overflowing with seldom-used formal wear by renting haute couture for your next big wedding or gala via locally-based RentTheRunway.com. You can even try on dresses at their Flatiron location. To get around, you can rent shared vehicles by hopping on a Citibike or taking out a ZipCar.

Share/borrow

Ninety percent of what we own is used infrequently, so why keep it around permanently? Borrow and share tools, party supplies, board games and more from similarly-minded neighbors at Peerby.com, NextDoor.com, or Neighborgoods.net. Let neighbors know which items you're willing to share through tools available on the latter website or a simple listserve circulated among dwellers in your building or on your block. A resource for bartering and swapping is moneycrashers.

Why can't libraries lend more than books? To encourage reuse, the Sacramento Library is just one of many across the country expanding into lending out other items like musical instruments, sewing machines, and GoPro cameras in addition to books and CDs (the Library of Things). Take a poll of neighbors' needs and encourage your local library to lend things, starting with items donated by community members.

Give it away/get it for free

FreeCycle.org is the granddaddy of internet sites that direct one to free goods, and allow others to pick up stuff you're willing to give away. Brooklyn Heights/DUMBO/Vinegar Hill, and Lincoln Square on the Upper West Side are just two city neighborhoods with a "Buy Nothing" Facebook page, a project of the Buy Nothing Project, (buynothingproject.org) that promotes the free exchange of items among affinity groups.

Start low-tech. Got a spare corner in your building's laundry room or lobby? Repurpose a cardboard carton, label it "Free Stuff" ('Take it, leave it") and start a healthy exchange in your apartment building. Encourage your local library, coffee house, or senior center — wherever people congregate indoors — to do the same.

Swap

GrowNYC hosts free Stop 'N' Swap events at local greenmarkets and schools, where people can drop off unwanted clothes, books, shoes, toys and housewares, and others can grab them, for free on a first come, first served basis. Their goal is to have one swap event in every community district each year, but why wait, when you can host your own event or party in your own building, congregation or other community group, and get in on the savings and the fun. Yerdle is a national community for exchanging goods.

A final helpful resource: Check out The NYC Stuff Exchange from the Sanitation Department to find out where to get durable items sold, donated or repaired.

3. Encourage businesses and governments to play their part

In addition to their roles as consumers, New York City residents can play an important part in achieving zero waste by encouraging the efforts of product manufacturers and government to ensure robust reuse and recycling opportunities.

Lobby city government officials to ramp up 'zero waste' practices by the public, starting with funding greater access to recyclables and organics collection programs curbside, on street corners, parks, offices and other public spaces. Support City Council Bill, Intro. 209-2014, which would place 10-cent fees on single-use paper and plastic bags (with certain exemptions). More information is available at www.bagitnyc.org.

Ask your City Councilmember to support the expansion of city-based reuse efforts like ReuseNYC which supports the thrift sector, Materials for the Arts, a program where you can donate used art materials that enables teachers to 'shop' for free art supplies in a 35,000 sq ft Long Island City warehouse, and the Lower East Side Ecology Center's E-waste Warehouse in Gowanus, Brooklyn, that redirects collected e-waste for recycling, and refurbishes still good electronics and sells them at a fraction of the original price.

Participate in letter-writing campaigns to encourage manufacturers to design products and packages that use less material, and to help close the recycling loop, to incorporate recycled materials into designs as well as materials like aluminum or paper which are easily recycled here in New York. Ask manufacturers to stop using toxic ingredients in their products.

Lobby for an expansion of the current Green NYC public education campaign to help consumers understand why and how to recycle, and to make using reusable bags, bottles and coffee cups "cool."

While there are many different steps consumers and citizens can take, getting towards zero waste is really more of a change in attitude than anything else. It's a realization that the Earth and its natural resources, the atmosphere, rivers and oceans are all finite, the climate is fragile, and continuing business as usual "consume and throw" is leading us all towards a degraded environment.

The road towards Zero Waste represents the process of becoming more responsible towards our environment. The manufacture, transport, and eventual disposal of products and packages have significant environmental and climate impacts of their own that can't be erased with even the most ardent of recycling efforts. As much as we enjoy the "right" to consume in an industrialized society, we need to acknowledge our corresponding "responsibility," something that includes not buying what we don't need in the first place, and shopping more mindfully, opting to buy fewer more quality things and treasuring them for the resources and craftsmanship they represent.

Together, we can do it, here in New York City.

Maggie Clarke, Ph.D., founder of Zero Waste New York, is an environmental scientist who specializes in recycling participation, waste prevention, and zero waste. She can be reached at maggieclarke[at]zerowastenewyork.org.

Jacquelyn Ottman is a native New Yorker, green marketing pioneer, author, and founder of WeHateToWaste.com focused on promoting zero waste as the basis of a new consumption ethic. She can be reached at info[at]greenmarketing.com

  • A great article Jacquelyn (and Maggie!) that covers all of the important bases for the proactive steps we need to be taking. Consumers have the opportunity for enormous influence in buying power and need to wield that power in purchasing patterns if companies are going to change the way things are made, packaged, shipped and (hopefully) reclaimed.